Steve Zehngut, Zeek
When Steve Zehngut earned a degree in film and began working in the entertainment industry, he realized it wasn't for him. He transitioned to a graphic design agency, which wasn't a fit either. Was Steve unemployable? No. He was just a misplaced entrepreneur. In 1995, Steve left the corporate world for good. He founded Zeek, which has grown to become Southern California's leading web, interactive, and mobile development agency.
Episode 42 – Steve Zehngut, Zeek
[00:00:54] Sanjay Parekh: Over 27 years ago, Steve Zehngut founded Zeek. Under his leadership, it has become Southern California's leading agency for web, interactive, and mobile development. Steve works with a large virtual team of engineers, designers, creative directors, and production managers who create content on multiple platforms. Here today to share more about his business, how he balances family and work, and his life as an entrepreneur is Steve Zehngut. Steve, welcome to the show!
[00:01:23] Steve Zehngut: Thank you, Sanjay. Happy to be here.
[00:01:24] Sanjay Parekh: So, I'd love, before we get into like kind of the nuts and bolts of the business and how you make everything work, I'd love to get a little bit about your background and what got you to the point that you're at right now.
[00:01:36] Steve Zehngut: Sure. I actually have a film degree, so I studied film in college. It's all I wanted to be when I was a kid. And got into Hollywood, got into the film industry, and hated every minute of it. Just, you know, very quickly just realized I didn't want to be there. It wasn't the place for me. And, you know, I kind of went searching for something else. This is in the early nineties. Very early nineties. And so, when I left, I went and I got a graphic design job. Because I knew that the computer was starting to happen. It really wasn't quite a thing yet, but I really want to learn the ins and outs of the computer. And so, I went and I got a graphic design job.
The job was interesting because it was a third shift job. My, shift started at 5:00 PM. And so, most of my shifts went from about 5:00 PM until at least 1:00 AM, sometimes until 3:00 AM. But we were printing, what we were doing was we were designing, those full-page car ads for the Sunday paper. And so, we would spend about three or four hours designing and then about five hours printing, because this is the early nineties. We had to print CMYK full page. There were 12 panels that took about maybe 20 minutes each to print in those days. And so, what I did with that downtime is I actually taught myself how to code. And so, that's where, that's sort of where the whole idea for the business came from.
[00:03:03] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Did you feel, regret at all in like, you get went and got this film degree and you're like, I hate this?
[00:03:11] Steve Zehngut: No. No.
[00:03:13] Sanjay Parekh: So, what kind of help you make that move then?
[00:03:16] Steve Zehngut: Like, here's the thing. I mean, what I was doing at the time when I was learning was multimedia. I don't really think that's a term anymore, but, you know, I mean you've been around the industry, you know, kind of as long as I have. So, I was learning Macromedia director at the time, that's what I taught myself how to do. I was learning how to build CD ROMs, and presentations, and multimedia. So, I was learning how to code, but it also spoke to, you know, my film background. Because it was always, it was also very creative and so that's what really kept me interested and kept me into it. The web was starting to happen around 1995 and I saw it starting to happen and I actually wrote a business plan for my boss at the graphic design shop to start a web agency under his umbrella. He loved it. His business partners did not. And so, he said no. And I quit that day and went and started Zeek.
[00:04:14] Sanjay Parekh: Wow. So, quit that day. So, I've got to ask you, is this your first ever entrepreneurial venture, or did you do things entrepreneurial as a kid? Or were there entrepreneurs in the family that you saw as examples of this?
[00:04:27] Steve Zehngut: Yeah, great question. My dad was an entrepreneur, a serial entrepreneur, so, my dad. So, I grew up around picture framing, and art. And so that's what my dad's business was. He had a custom picture framing shop, and he sold art.
And so, there was a, you know, I was always around, seeing my dad be self-employed understanding what it meant to network, learning about customer service. I went to work for my dad when I was eight. And so, we were in Cincinnati, at the time and he had a picture frame shop called Frame and Save. That's what the first one I had to go back a few. It was called Frame and Save; it was a custom framing and DIY. So, he offered both. And so, you could pay for custom framing or if it that was too expensive, then he'd give you the materials. And he literally had four or six stalls in the front of the shop with a vice grip. And he'd give you the materials and you'd build the frame yourself. And that was my job. I was there to teach people how to build a picture frame at eight. And so, I was really, I honestly don't remember if my dad was paying me, if he was it wasn't a lot, but I was getting tips. And so, that's, that was probably my first job.
[00:05:52] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah. Fascinating. And so interesting, I've never heard of a DIY picture frame shop like that.
[00:06:00] Steve Zehngut: I think he was one of the only, and I'm sure it definitely wouldn't fly today because you'd probably have to sign a waiver for just walking in the door. I mean, he was literally handing people nails and a saw, but this was the seventies. I mean, you know. What do you want? You didn't have all the lawyers and the waivers and all that stuff back then.
[00:06:15] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, okay. So, fascinating. So, when you quit your job, and started up Zeek, how did you kind of figure, I mean, this is your first time starting up an agency like this? Like how, where did you go find the first customers clients and everything?
[00:06:38] Steve Zehngut: Yeah, great question. I started with, zero clients and no prospects and no money. It was just an idea.
[00:06:47] Sanjay Parekh: So, a winning formula right from the start.
[00:06:49] Steve Zehngut: Absolutely. I had this business plan. And I kind of knew where I wanted to take it. But what I did is, you know, we started the company, we were kind of building things, and I would just go out every day and meet with whoever would listen to me. And I would tell them about what we were thinking. We didn't make a dime for two years. And so, I was working, I was actually, you know, while starting the business, I got a job teaching at a university in Burbank, teaching multimedia. It's kind of how I made ends meet. And again, my day was just spent networking and I was literally just going and meeting anybody who would talk to me about web and video games. We were making some video games. We were doing CD ROMs, we were doing a lot of different things. We got our first paying gig in, I want to say the end of ‘96, right around the end of ‘96. And that was for a, do you remember the movie Multiplicity with Michael Keaton?
[00:07:53] Sanjay Parekh: Oh, yeah! Yeah.
[00:07:56] Steve Zehngut: So, we connected with a woman who was the head of the ad agency for Multiplicity. And she hired us to build five games for their website.
[00:08:06] Sanjay Parekh: Oh, cool. Okay. So, during this, so basically, you're running this as a side hustle because you've got a full-time job, and you're doing this. How are you balancing these two things? Because some of these meetings you're having to do during the day, I'm imagining. And do you have teaching responsibilities then?
[00:08:25] Steve Zehngut: Yeah, I think the teaching stuff, you know, because it was part-time, it sort of worked within my schedule. So, I think my classes were, I had two classes in, the early morning on maybe a Tuesday and Thursday. And then I maybe had an evening class. And that was about it. The rest of the time was just spent literally, so I was living in the valley and driving over to LA every day and just taking meetings. And again, it was anybody that would listen to me. But it paid off because as soon as we got our first job, as soon as it hit, then everybody kind of knew who we were. And the floodgates opened. It did. The work just started coming in.
[00:09:04] Sanjay Parekh: So, the key was getting that first gig. What did it take to get that? Like, how were you able to unlock that?
[00:09:13] Steve Zehngut: A lot of begging. You know what, so, it's funny, I also, in addition to, I didn't sleep a lot during this period, by the way literally didn't sleep a lot. I was maybe getting, you know, four hours of sleep on a good night.
[00:09:29] Sanjay Parekh: Well, don't worry, we're going to talk about work life balance in a minute, but keep going.
[00:09:32] Steve Zehngut: So, during this time, we also, led a user group. There wasn't Meetup yet. So, this was called a SIG, a special interest group. At the Los Angeles McIntosh Group. And so, they gave me a SIG, a multimedia SIG, and so I started leading that and during that time, they held a trade show also in Burbank. And because I was leading the SIG voluntarily, they gave me a booth. They had an extra booth space. They gave me a booth. And so, what we did is we, I literally just, I found a, beat up couch on the side of the road. I put it in the back of my truck. We set up a couch, with a rug, and a coffee machine at the trade show, and that was our booth. And it was basically, we called it, so we were doing a lot of Shockwave at the time, which was Macromedia director, but it was online. We called it the Shockwave Lounge. We literally just stood there and invited people to come in, take a load off, let me show you what we do. And we just happened to talk to the right lady. It was right at maybe the last hour of the trade show too. She came in, she stopped by, I showed her what we were doing, and she said "This is exactly what I need. And I want you to come and meet with me on Monday."
[00:10:47] Sanjay Parekh: Wow. Aren't you glad you didn't start taking down the booth early there? Like you see so many times in conference shows where people are just like packing it up and there's still people walking around. Like, you never know what might happen there.
[00:11:01] Steve Zehngut: Yeah. And again, I think, you know, to me that time period, you know, throughout sort of ‘95 to 2000, a lot of it was just hustle, right? I was anywhere, like I said, literally anyone that would listen to me, anybody would take a meeting, I would go and meet with and just talk to, because I never knew who was connected to who, or who could introduce me to who. And I just went and met with everyone. And I think it, you know, it just became a sort of a scattershot, you know, kind of numbers game. And it worked.
[00:11:35] Sanjay Parekh: Let's talk about one of the things that I think drives or prevents a lot of people from being founders and entrepreneurs like this. Is the fear, like did you have fear during any of this time? Like this was not going to work. Like how did you think about like the bad part of being a founder?
[00:11:58] Steve Zehngut: Yeah. I mean, you know, I always have fear. I still have fear to this day. I mean, fear’s kind of natural. Like that's just, you know, that's just being, human. But I also had drive, and so I think there was fear that this wasn't going to succeed. That was always there. But to me the fear that was driving me or was motivating me was the fear of having to go find a nine to five job again, right? I didn't want to do that. That to me was scarier than doing my own thing. I knew even at 23 that I was unemployable. And so, I truly did have that fear of going and getting a regular job. That's I think what pushed me the most.
[00:12:47] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, you think that one fear overrode the other fears?
[00:12:51] Steve Zehngut: Yeah. Essentially. Yeah. And it's funny, I mean, I've been doing this for 27 years and that's still a fear to this day.
[00:13:00] Sanjay Parekh: And how do you deal with that though? Like, because I think, you know, I talk to a lot of people and a lot of people have those ideas. They want to be side hustlers, they want to start a small business, but they're worried, they're fearful. You know, like you, like all the things I don't know, and the things that I don't know that I don't know, right? Like how do you get over that? Because that's probably the constant as an entrepreneur, right? Like there's a lot of things we don't know, and we don't know the things we don't know, but yet we still do them.
[00:13:31] Steve Zehngut: Years and years of therapy. (laughs) It's funny you ask, and I think about this a lot because, you know, when I started the company, I was 25. I did not know a lot. I did not know any better. All I knew was I wanted to start my own company and I knew this internet multimedia computer thing was starting to happen. I saw this wave coming, right? And so, I knew I was onto something. But I didn't know any better. And what I think about these days is, if I had to do it all over again, would I do it now at 52 years old? I don't know. You know, now I know a lot more. So, it may have just been, you know, a bunch of naivete, during that time.
[00:14:22] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. You have a lot more now that you could risk and lose than probably back then.
[00:14:29] Steve Zehngut: And that's another piece of it. I mean, now I have a family and so I have, you know, I have responsibilities, I have a lot more responsibilities. I had a family back then too. And so, it is just, Again, I think, you know, a lot of it was just me being young. But I think what kept me going, I think what got me truly past that fear is, I know what I do have is hustle, or grit, or you pick a word. You know, that's something that I, you know, I've kind of had all my life. So that's what get got me over that hump was, look, I know I can make something happen. And I know I have the motivation to try hard enough to make it happen.
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[00:15:37] Sanjay Parekh: Well, let's talk about something that we touched on before, the lack of sleep that you had in the early time. How do you think about kind of those boundaries and work-life balance and how did you think about them then, and how do you think about them now?
[00:15:51] Steve Zehngut: Yeah, and by the way, you know, even though I didn't get a lot of sleep back in those days, I do not recommend that to anybody. That is a horrible way to work. I look back on that time as terrible and a lot of people in my industry, a lot of coders and developers, treat those all-nighters as sort of a badge of honor. And I've heard people talk about it, you know, if you didn't pull those all-nighters you're not a real coder. That's terrible. None of that's true. Don't buy into that. And so, you know, but I used to do it. I used to, you know, when we started getting contracts, not only was I selling, but I was also coding, you know, parts of it. And so, I'd go and sell during the day, and then I'd code until about, you know, three, four in the morning, and then maybe sleep until eight and then start my day all over again. I was coding all weekend, sometimes, so I wasn't taking any downtime. And that's just not the way to be. It's stressful. It causes burnout. I was unhealthy. You know, those habits are just not good.
[00:17:02] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah, yeah. So, at what point did you kind of realize this and kind of reset? Your priorities around this how do you ensure that you do have those boundaries now?
[00:17:12] Steve Zehngut: Just right now. I've just realized it right now.
[00:17:16] Sanjay Parekh: As we’re talking.
[00:17:20] Steve Zehngut: You know what, it actually took me a long time to start setting healthy boundaries and practicing work-life balance. It's been an evolution, right? And so, I don't know that I can point to any one particular time. I know, from ‘95 to 2000, you know, that was probably my most unhealthy period. Probably early 2000s, you know, as I, you know, started to have kids and have a family, I was taking some downtime, but not enough. And it's only recently that I have hired people to take on, you know, some of the tasks that you know, I'm not good at, or that I don't like to do, and, you know, start really practicing a healthy work-life balance. And so, like I said, it's been an evolution and it's still, you know, evolving. It's still something I have to learn and kind of remind myself all the time.
[00:18:12] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah. It's really easy to fall back into those kind of old habits and things. Because you knew it was successful, right? Because now looking back at it, it all worked, so if you just do that, it'll all be good again. But that's not necessarily true.
[00:18:27] Steve Zehngut: Here's the thing I know is, if you don't practice any self-care, then you're not going to be good at whatever you're trying to do during your day, right? And so that's the lesson I took away from all of that time is, there were times where I was practicing zero self-care. Frankly, the reason I was pulling all-nighters is I was not as productive as I could have been had I been practicing proper self-care, right? And that's sort of the rub, right? If you get a full eight hours’ sleep or more, right? Then you're way more refreshed and productive during your day and your days actually get shorter because you do more. And so, yeah, that's my big takeaway.
[00:19:14] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. It becomes a vicious cycle that becomes very hard to get out of.
[00:19:17] Steve Zehngut: Absolutely.
[00:19:19] Sanjay Parekh: I think everybody does at some point they realize it and get out of it, but it's really hard to fix that.
[00:19:25] Steve Zehngut: And I used to measure it in cups of coffee and cans of Diet Coke, you know. I could see it, I could literally see on my desk, you know, what my caffeine intake looked like. And I kind of knew that was a sign of me practicing unhealthy habits.
[00:19:43] Sanjay Parekh: So, let's, switch gears a little bit talk about some of the things that you now leverage, in terms of technology apps, systems to help you manage the business, manage life. What's critical to you that you couldn't live without?
[00:20:02] Steve Zehngut: It's an interesting question. I thought about this question a lot. You know, when you sent it to me. I read a book two years ago that really changed my life. And that was Rocket Fuel. It's a pretty simple book. It's just about the difference between visionaries and integrators. And my wife turned me onto it. And it helped me identify that there's things I'm good at. I have a superpower, right? And there's things that I'm not good at, and more importantly, there's things I just don't like doing. So, all of the stuff that was in the visionary section of the book, it was like reading my biography, right?
And all the stuff that was in the integrator section of the book, I read it and I said, this sounds awful. This is all awful, right? And frankly, that's all the running of the business stuff. It's the operations stuff. It's the project management, it's the paperwork, it's the human resources. Right? And as an entrepreneur, I think, you know, myself included a lot of my friends that I know that run other agencies think that you have to do it all, as a business owner. That's just not true. And so, two years ago, I read the book I hired a COO and she came in and she just started handling all the stuff that an integrator's supposed to do. So that I can just go and stay and be a visionary and handle business development and handle networking and the stuff that I actually enjoy doing. And that by itself, you asked about sort of systems, that is what we've implemented over the past couple years that's really changed the business and really changed my life. So that's a biggie.
As far as technology and apps and things like that, you know, I'll give you a list of what we use. But it doesn't necessarily matter what technology or apps that you use, what really matters is how you use them, and what kind of protocols and boundaries you put in place. So, ours are pretty standard. For daily communication, we use Zoom and Slack. We are fully remote by the way. So, we went fully remote about five years ago. So pre-pandemic, we were already fully remote and so we were kind of all set up when the pandemic hit.
[00:22:34] Sanjay Parekh: What motivated that change? What drove you guys to do that?
[00:22:39] Steve Zehngut: My wife. My wife actually is a COO as well. Not in the technology industry, but she is a COO. She came in, and sort of looked at the expense of the office space that we had and how many clients I wasn't seeing there said, I don't understand this. I don't know why you're doing this.
[00:22:58] Sanjay Parekh: Why do you have this big office that nobody sees?
[00:23:01] Steve Zehngut: Yeah. It turns out I was actually the one that was holding onto the office. None of the employees wanted to be there. Nobody wanted to commute. And I was really the only one that, there were many days I would go in. I was literally the only one in the office. And so that right there saved me $7,500 a month. Because, you know, amazing office space isn't cheap here in Huntington Beach. And so, going fully remote was a big deal for us. And so, again, we started using Zoom, Slack, and phone calls. And so again, just, you know, video chat and some sort of communication software. But what matters is, the protocol that we have in place what really helps with remote work. I know this isn't your exact question, but really has helped us with our remote systems is making sure that all of our people are accountable, right? And so, none of those systems work if people aren't using them or they don't respond, or you can't get ahold of them. So, accountability is a big piece of that for us.
[00:24:02] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So how do you, I think this is an interesting area and we've touched on this in other interviews. How are you doing that accountability and making sure, because now you can't see the team, right? So, you don't know what they're doing. I think that's one of the biggest fears of a lot of managers, a lot of owners, because now I'm paying people, but I don't actually know what they're doing. Conceivably, you now have a team that's also not even necessarily local and they're dispersed probably geographically. So how do you make sure that you're getting the best work, all of the work, out of your people?
[00:24:37] Steve Zehngut: So, one of the things that going remote unlocked for us, was the ability to, it opened up our hiring radius. We didn't have one anymore, right? We do generally work on US time zones. So, most of our employees are based in the US. We have one in Argentina; we have one in the Dominican. But most of our people are US based. So now we didn't have to hire in Southern California anymore. We could hire all over the place. And so, what that did for us was, allowed us to be a little bit more selective with who we hire, and made sure just from the get-go, that we were hiring people that were responsible, were accountable, and could deliver and sort of work within their own space, and hold themselves to a higher standard. So that's sort of the, that's the foundation of it all. It all starts there. If you don't have the right people, nothing you put in place is going to work.
But you know, we use some of the other tools that we use because we're a development shop, we use Teamwork for project management. We use GitHub, for tracking all of our code. And so, we're in an environment where it actually is somewhat easier to track. You know, we can see what code commits people are turning in, right? We can see what sort of progress they're making on a daily or weekly basis. Or quicker than that if the cadence requires it. And so, we have, daily, weekly, monthly deliverables that each of our team members is responsible for. And so those can be tracked. Not all industries are like that, but we actually have tangible things that people are turning in. So, we know in general if people are delivering or not.
[00:26:23] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, Steve, thinking back, it's been 27 years now that you've been doing this. Can you point to one thing or maybe even a couple of things that, now reflecting back, that you would do differently. Like knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?
[00:26:40] Steve Zehngut: Well, that's a good question. You know, I think I probably would've brought on, people to handle the operations stuff sooner in my business. Not that we were doing anything wrong, but there were probably a lot of missed opportunities for us along the way. Just from a processes standpoint, a system standpoint, you know, we could have been leaner, we could have been more efficient, along the way. And, you know, we made mistakes as a result. So, I would've brought people in sooner. Yeah, that's probably the one thing I can point to. And just because that delegation and partnering with those people that I’ve brought in over the past couple years have been so key to our growth, in recent years.
[00:27:33] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. Okay. So last question for you. For our listeners that are thinking about taking the leap and launching a side hustle like you did or taking a side hustle and making a full-time business. Do you have any advice for them? In kind of that journey, they're about to embark on.
[00:27:53] Steve Zehngut: Sure. I would focus on the word hustle, in that, in that question, right? Because any side hustle you do, requires work and requires hustle and requires just a constant drive, to make it happen. It's not going to happen on its own. And so, the only reason, you know, not the only reason, but a big part of our success at Zeek over the past 27 years has been, you know, the drive, the motivation, right? That hustle piece of it. And it takes, you know, it takes some grit. Not everybody has it, and that's okay. Right? And so, I think it's important that you ask yourself, you know, that honest question: Do you have the motivation to do it, before you take that leap? And if you don't know, ask a close friend, a true friend who's going to be honest with you to let you know if you have it. Because it's, you know, it's not for everybody. And that's okay too, right?
The other thing I'd say is, if you are going to start a side hustle, you are going to start your own business, find something that you are truly passionate about. Find something you love. I love this business. I really do love the technology industry. There's some challenge every day. I read all the time. I'm always learning something. That's what drives me to, to stay in this business. it's what's going to keep us in business another 27 years. Don't start a side hustle for money. It won't last.
[00:29:30] Sanjay Parekh: That is a great piece of advice.
[00:29:32] Steve Zehngut: Let me say that differently. Don't start it for money alone, if you're just in it for the money, it's not going to last. You have to have something that you're passionate about.
[00:29:42] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. The passion definitely runs out if you're only in it for the money, you've got to have something else.
[00:29:47] Steve Zehngut: Guaranteed. For sure.
[00:29:49] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Steve, this has been fantastic. Where can our listeners find and connect with you?
[00:29:52] Steve Zehngut: Sure. You know, I'm on all the social networks. My nickname is typically Zengy. So, Twitter @Zengy is fine. LinkedIn, I believe it's also Zengy, Facebook, I'm there as well. Or you can just go to Zeek.com and fill out our form and usually it just comes straight to me.
[00:30:13] Sanjay Parekh: There you go. Awesome. Thanks for coming on the show, Steve.
[00:30:16] Steve Zehngut: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:30:19] Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this week's episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. To learn more about how Hiscox can help protect your small business through intelligent insurance solutions, visit hiscox.com. And if you have a story you want to hear on this podcast, please visit www.hiscox.com/shareyourstory. I'm your host Sanjay Parekh. You can find me on Twitter @sanjay or on my website at www.sanjayparekh.com.